Reading the arguments, some stronger than others, a clear message comes through: the best airline depends on where you live (who offers the best service) and what you value (fewer fees, better inflight internet).
The Case for American Airlines, How Does It Hold?
JT Genter argues for American because:
- High speed inflight internet though Delta offers this too.
- More premium economy seats than competitors they’re ahead of other airlines with rolling out this cabin, though they’ve taken business class seats out of Boeing 777-200s and Boeing 787-8s while United has been adding business seats to aircraft and Boeing 777s are configured 10-abreast in coach while Delta gives coach passengers more room at 9-across.
- Top tier elites get first class lounge access on oneworld partners access to Qantas’ first class lounge in Sydney, Cathay Pacific’s Wing and Pier is a nice perk.
- Improved lounges American’s Flagship Dining is probably the best offering in the U.S. (not North America, Air Canada’s Signature Suite in Toronto is better). However United Polaris lounges trump Flagship lounges, and Delta Sky Clubs are better than American Admirals Clubs or United Clubs.
- Earn elite qualifying dollars with oneworld partners this is a differentiator from United, but not Delta.
- Upgrades complimentary domestic for 75,000 mile elites and above, and Executive Platinums get at least 4 confirmed international upgrades a year. This really isn’t a differentiator though United and Delta offer complimentary domestic upgrades to all elites and Delta offers top tier elites confirmed international upgrade certificates valid on lowest fare. United is the laggard requiring minimum fare for international upgrade – which is a problem because you’re usually waitlisting, so you have to spend more on the ticket, essentially buying a lottery entry, for the chance of an upgrade.
Cathay Pacific “The Pier” First Class Lounge, Hong Kong
There’s not a lot that JT offers to argue for American over competitors. He concedes American’s operational challenges. International first class lounges are a nice perk, but most passengers don’t have the opportunity to take advantage of this.
American is clearly the better airline for me to fly because their route network works out of my home city (Austin) and their internet works while United’s doesn’t. Beyond that American has largely made a strategic choice not to be better than competitors.
The Case for United Airlines, How Does It Hold?
Zach Honig argues for United because:
- He lives closest to Newark airport. This is a great reason to fly United, there’s no reason to schlepp out to New York JFK for another carrier’s non-stop flights. This hones in on a key reason to choose an airline – schedule – but is applicable only to people who live near an uncontested United hub.
- Polaris business class seats. These are better than United’s older generation seats without direct aisle access or any privacy, and United can fit more of the into planes which makes upgrades plausible, the seat itself lags American’s and Delta’s on most aircraft.
- Polaris lounges are nice and for business class travelers they’re the best going. American bests them for elites traveling internationally (United Global Services won’t even get access flying domestically or international coach). And Zach concedes that the Newark standard club situation is a bad joke, while it’s worth noting that Delta’s standard clubs are better. Clubs overall aren’t a clear winner or differentiator for United.
- Catering and service is ok indeed United has made catering and service cutbacks in international business and last year even tried to kill meals on many long lunch flights (but relented in the face of criticism). Surely this isn’t a differentiator for United.
- Inflight wifi has gotten better but still far behind United and Delta.
- MileagePlus he gets upgrades as a top tier elite (other airline top elites can say the same) and redeems miles on Star Alliance partners. United’s access to award space on Star partners, since that alliance has the most partners, is a differentiator — however most miles aren’t earned through flying and United awards miles based on spend anyway. Anyone with points from a bank-issued transferable points credit card can redeem awards through Star Alliance.
United Polaris Lounge Dining, Newark
The legitimate case Zach makes here is that he lives near Newark and should fly United, and therefore he’ll earn top tier elite status and be treated reasonably well as a top tier elite would be on competitor airlines.
The Case for Delta Air Lines, How Does It Hold?
Scott Mayerowitz argues for Delta because:
- Operationally reliable more likely to run on time and cancels fewer flights than major competitor. That’s true.
- More helpful staff while I find telephone customer service agents more clueless than those at other airlines, they can often be more helpful bending rules. On the whole gate agents and flight attendants are somewhat friendlier (though not always so).
- He lives in New York and Delta offers plenty of choice between New York JFK and New York LaGuardia. Between Zach and Scott we’re centering on a theme, choosing the airline whose service most matches needs.
- Earn more qualifying miles towards status via credit card than other airlines so while Delta’s top tier Diamond requires more miles (125,000 vs 100,000) than competitors some will find it easier to earn while flying less.
Delta Sky Club, Austin
He doesn’t mention the airline’s commitment to seat back entertainment, which sets it apart from the other large U.S. carriers and will matter to some (I always prefer to watch my own entertainment, not even what’s streamed, or to work).
Scott acknowledges the shortcomings of SkyMiles redemptions (best for folks who like short distance coach travel) and availability and flexibility of their confirmed international elite upgrades.
It comes down to SkyMiles being an inferior redemption program, a competitive elite program, and a somewhat better-run airline. Unquestionably someone living in Atlanta or the Upper Midwest should fly Delta.
The Case for Southwest Airlines, How Does It Hold?
Benet Wilson argues for Southwest because:
- Friendly employees Southwest gate agents and flight attendants don’t seem unhappy to be at work, that makes passengers feel welcome and travel less stressful.
- Free checked bags helps make the airline a better value.
- No change fees make it easy to buy Southwest tickets, lock in a good deal, and if you need to change later apply the full value of your purchase to another ticket.
- Cheap Wifi it isn’t American or Delta quality and reliability, but it’s just $8 per flight. (JetBlue of course offers Wifi free, and other airlines may move to that.)
- Baltimore non-stops once again where someone lives helps dictate their preference for airline based on schedule options.
I think she misses one of the key selling points of the airline – more legroom. The airline generally offers 32 inches from seat back to seat back, while other major carriers offer as little as 30. That extra space means opening a laptop and working.
Southwest’s ‘cattle car boarding process’ is actually great for last minute business travelers and the airline is more generous with free drinks in standard coach than competitors.
While acknowledging the limitations of the frequent flyer program (no airline partner redemptions) and lack of seat power, Southwest is great for short non-stop flying. I’d prefer to fly someone else for Hawaii, but on flights up to 3 hours I’m happy with Southwest, which is good because they’re the largest carrier at my home airport in Austin (hence I’ve currently got A-List status in addition to American Airlines Executive Platinum).
What the Comparisons Really Mean
SkyMiles is a dumpster fire but you fly Delta when they have the best schedules, and because they’re friendlier and more reliable. Miles from flying don’t matter so much now anyway, just don’t spend on one of their credit cards unless you’re doing it for elite status.
Delta isn’t currently a meaningful option for most of my trips, living, in Austin, even though they’re making it a focus city. Southwest offers the most point-to-point flights, and flying them in non-extra legroom coach is better than flying American, United, or Delta at least on shorter trips.
Choose the airline with the best schedule, where they’re equivalent with the best reliability, and for regular coach comfort go with Southwest. Since I need to work inflight pretty much all the time I prefer American or Delta, United still isn’t an option though if I lived on Staten Island I’d fly out of Newark and sacrifice productivity.
No airline is all things to all people, no airline frequent flyer program among those four carriers is a real differentiator and reason to go out of your way to fly a specific airline, but it’s useful to stick with one carrier and earn status where you can. Your miles will be earned through things other than flying and there flexible points transfer programs are best.